The Refugee Council took part in a mass lobby of Parliament in protest over planned cuts in provision of English classes to asylum seekers and refugees.
The Refugee Council joined the University and College Union, Refugee Action NIACE, and other organisations to try to stop the government from going ahead with cuts to the provision of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes.
As of August 2007, asylum seekers will no longer be entitled to free ESOL classes, and refugees who are in work and not claiming any income-based benefits will also not be able to access lessons for free.
The Refugee Council has serious concerns about the impact this will have. Asylum seekers will struggle to access basic services, more will have to be spent on interpreting, and should they be given permission to stay in the UK they will find it harder to integrate into the wider community. For refugees, limiting access to English classes will increase the difficulties they already face in building new lives in the UK and finding work. Many refugees are unemployed or in jobs which don’t use their skills and experience, and refugee communities are among the poorest in the country.
The mass lobby of Parliament began with a mock ESOL lesson on Parliament Square at 10.15am. Asylum seekers and refugees from across the country who have benefited from ESOL lessons attended, along with key speakers including Anna Reisenberger, acting Chief Executive of the Refugee Council. The lesson was staged to highlight the positive effects of providing ESOL and the damage stopping funding will have, particularly for asylum seekers.
Clementine Mwanzo, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo who is taking part in the mock lesson, is a trained midwife. As an asylum seeker, she is not allowed to work, so she volunteers in the maternity unit at her local hospital in Stockport, Greater Manchester, through Refugee Action’s Horizons project. She arrived in the UK unable to speak any English, and so ESOL classes have enabled her to make a valuable contribution to her community which in turn has meant that she has not missed out on gaining work experience which will prepare her for when she is finally able to work.
“When I first came to the UK I could not speak English and faced many problems. I found it difficult to do simple things like buy things from the shop or use the bus.
“I can now speak English because of ESOL lessons and this means I can volunteer. To work in the hospital I need to be able to communicate with the patients. I have also learned about British practices and systems so that I can hopefully work in the NHS in the future. I have also made friends and get out and about now instead of just staying in the house.”
At 11.30am, following the lesson, Bill Rammell MP, Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, spoke at a meeting in the Houses of Parliament. The Minister took a number of questions, including several from students who have taken part in the ESOL lesson earlier in the day. Although he was not going to concede yet on some points, he wanted to look further at a couple of points made by the students around women accessing services and people from certain countries who cannot be returned. He was followed by acting Chief Executive of the Refugee Council Anna Reisenberger. Throughout the day, people from across the UK were planning to meet their MP to lobby them to restore free ESOL tuition.
Mariam Barry, an asylum seeker living in Yorkshire, travelled down to join the protest. Mariam’s MP, George Mudie (Leeds East), has signed an early day motion calling for ESOL funding to be restored.
Mariam fled Guinea Conakry in West Africa in June 2006 because her father, who has beaten all his children since they were young, had arranged an enforced marriage for her to a 75 year old man with three wives, one of whom recently died of HIV. Her father has advertised her disappearance in a newspaper in Guinea Conakry. When she fled, she didn’t know where her destination would be and spoke only a small amount of English. Through ESOL classes in Leeds, Mariam’s English has improved enormously. She now does volunteering and she hopes that if she gets refugee status she can train to be a nurse.
“ESOL classes have improved my English. I came from a French speaking country. If I hadn’t attended ESOL classes I really couldn’t have said many words in English. I don’t have relatives here, all my friends are English speakers. Going to the shop or market, would have been every difficult without ESOL.”
“I think the Government should let the funding for ESOL classes continue. If you get refugee status and you don’t have English how can you start a job? It’s better if we can learn English while we are waiting for our cases to be decided. I saw on TV politicians saying if you can’t speak good English you will have things taken away from you. If I get status I don’t want to just sit in my house, I want to get on and do things.”
Anna Reisenberger, acting Chief Executive of the Refugee Council said:
“In recent months, when the Prime Minister himself has emphasised the importance of learning English¹, and there has been widespread criticism of the amount of money being spent on translation and interpreting costs, it is astonishing that the government has made this decision. Asylum seekers are dispersed around the country to live as part of British communities. How is it going to be possible to promote social inclusion when people are unable to talk to each other, and newly arrived asylum seekers find it a struggle just to go into local shops and buy a pint of milk?
“In the longer term, stopping people from being able to learn English, or take up a range of courses, will harm the economy, and make it even more difficult for refugees to find work once they have been given leave to stay in the UK.”
Notes to editor:
1. Prime Minister’s Official Press Conference October 2006: “It is important in my view that people who come into the country and settle here, learn to speak English”.
2. From August 2007, ESOL classes will no longer be free, except to certain groups. This means asylum seekers will not be eligible for free tuition, and neither will refugees who are in work and not in receipt of income-based benefits.
Further, from 2007/08 asylum seekers aged 19+ will no longer be automatically eligible for publicly funded Further Education provision.
3. The lobby meeting took place in Committee Room 14 from 11.00am to 2.30pm. UCU Joint General Secretary Paul Mackney will open the meeting at 11am. Bill Rammell MP will speak at 11.30, followed by Anna Reisenberger at 12pm.
Other speakers include: Lord Bill Morris, Joanne Gaukroger (principal of Tower Hamlets college), Ellie Morris (NUS), Jack Dromey (TGWU), Alan Tuckett (NIACE), Francis O’Grady (TUC), Ruth Serwoka (LSC), Iren Austin (Natecla), Lee Jasper (GLA), Katherine Blaker (STAR) and Sylvia Wachuku-King (London Refugee Voice and Chair of Southward Refugee Forum).